Samsung Epix Review

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The Samsung Epix is a mid-range Windows Mobile smartphone that debuted recently from AT&T.

This device includes both a touchscreen and an optical mouse. It also has a small QWERTY keyboard, 3G support, and Wi-Fi.

This model is available now on AT&T’s website for $200 with a two-year service agreement and after a mail-in rebate.


Samsung EpixInside this Review:

Design and Construction

The first thing that you notice about the Epix is that it bears a strong resemblance to Samsung’s popular BlackJack smartphones, which has lead to some people referring to it as the BlackJack III. This dovetails nicely into my first major theme: appearances can be deceiving.

Despite the similarity, the Epix is not being marketed as a successor to the Samsung BlackJack and BlackJack II models. And for good reason: a lot of that look is skin deep. The most obvious difference is that the Epix has a touchscreen, and runs the more complex Windows Mobile Pro version of the platform; more on this later.

It also looks black in the publicity photos, which led me to be surprised when I opened up the box and found that it’s actually a hematite grey, like a glossy version of the color sported by the Samsung Ace. If you don’t know what hematite looks like, think dark silver. It’s a good look, being attractive but still businesslike. It’s a little fingerprint-prone, but not so much that it becomes a distraction. I’m pretty hard to please about fingerprints, but the Epix does better than my relatively smudgable BlackJack II.

Speaking of deceptive photos, the first impression that people tend to get from looking at them is that the Epix is monstrously thick (an impression bolstered by online peanut-gallery commentators with more opinions than facts). But that’s not really the case. The Epix measures out at just 0.51 inches thick, substantially less than the similarly specced AT&T Tilt and the same as the Palm Treo Pro. Both of those other devices, notably, have a smaller battery than the Epix.

Samsung EpixBuild quality is typical for Samsung, which is to say excellent. I’ve dropped my BlackJack II more than once onto a wood and even concrete floor without noticeable damage — that should give you an idea how sturdily these things are built.

This brings me to the usability factor, where I have my first mixed note. The keyboard on the Epix is wonderful, as good as Samsung usually builds. But the 5-way directional control is rather questionable. The Epix has the same kind of optical-tracking pad that we first saw on the Samsung Omnia. Instead of actually moving or clicking it, you slide your finger over the sensor, and it reads the movement. You have the option of using it either as a standard 5-way directional pad, or as a kind of virtual mouse, with the optics controlling the mouse cursor.

I will say this, the optical controller works a lot better on the Epix than it did on the Omnia, if for no other reason than the fact that your finger is in a lot more natural spot to manipulate it. Still, it doesn’t quite match up to a real directional pad. It’s hard to move precisely when you’re in 5-way mode, so much of the time you might as well just tap the screen to select menu options.

The mouse cursor is a lot more precise, and is actually surprisingly usable for day-to-day navigation. However, there’s no quick and easy way to switch from directional controls to mouse and back, making navigation more difficult in apps like Opera Mini which really want a conventional directional pad. I’d much rather Samsung had combined the approaches: the optical sensor surrounded by a clickable 4-way control. That would give you the best of the classic style while still enabling the optical mouse for those times when it really is convenient.

Samsung Epix StylusInside the box with the Epix you get the usual assortment of accessories — mostly, anyway. Absent is the usual cheap headset or headphones. In its place, you get an adapter to connect standard 3.5 mm headphones to the Samsung proprietary audio jack. Better than nothing, I suppose. More and more these days the assumption seems to be that anyone serious about hands-free use will use a Bluetooth headset.

Software Package

The biggest difference between the Epix and the BlackJacks, and probably the main reason why this device isn’t marketed as the BlackJack III, is the operating system. While the older models ran on Windows Mobile “Standard,” for non-touchscreen devices, the Epix sports a touchscreen and the “Professional” version of the platform. This is more than a semantic difference: the WM Pro interface is quite different from that of WM Standard.

The upgrade to Windows Mobile Pro is a bit of a mixed bag. The good news is that Epix users have the advantage of the much larger WM Pro software base, including more robust web browsers like Opera Mobile 9.5, more productivity apps like TextMaker, more games, etcetera, etcetera. How many more? One prominent online software store lists almost 5 times as many applications for WM Pro as for WM Standard. Not all of them are useful, but it’s nice to have the option.

The downside of getting a new OS is that the Pro interface is a lot less clean and straightforward than WM Standard. It’s a lot more touchscreen dependent, and there are more layers of menus to access. Personally, for a phone device I prefer the simplicity and ease of a UI that can be entirely driven from the application buttons, which is what WM Standard provides. More menus means more layers to get through when you want to do something. It’s hardly killer, but it can be a bit of an annoyance.

Samsung Epix KeyboardThe bottom line here is that if you’re going from one of the BlackJacks to the Epix, you’re going to have a readjustment period, and you’re not going to be getting around as fast and easily as you might have at one point.

I must say, the pre-installed software package has been getting more and more interesting lately, at least for AT&T devices I’ve played with. An instant weather app, improved Java interface, and now the newest pleasant surprise is an app called WikiMobile, which is basically a direct interface to the Wikipedia, no browser needed. Despite being Java based, it’s accessible directly from the standard app launcher. Nice.

On the subject of software, one unfortunate note. The Epix lacks one of the great features that the BlackJacks have — the ability to press and hold a keyboard key to get the alternate character, instead of having to use the Function key. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s really surprisingly convenient, particularly if you’re typing one handed and just want to add punctuation. But for some reason, Samsung only implements this on the BlackJacks, not on the Ace or any of their WM Pro phones. I wish they would — it’s a very convenient option.

Wireless Connectivity

What connectivity options does the Epix have, you ask? Pretty much all of them. It’s a quad-band GSM device, and so works with any GSM provider around the world. It’s also tri-band HSDPA, meaning that on AT&T Wireless or most international providers you’ll get high-speed data if it’s available. Add to that a fast and very easy to work with Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) radio, as well as Bluetooth 2.0, and you should be able to connect to pretty much anything you want, anywhere you want.

The only short way to describe the performance of the Epix’s cellular radio is “exceptional.” It held about as good a signal as any device I’ve ever reviewed: equal to the spectacular RF performance of the HTC Kaiser, and so good that it made my little BlackJack II envious. It would hold 2-3 bars from a tower 15 miles away, from inside a house that’s not always friendly to radio signals. My BlackJack could only manage 1-2. Likewise the Epix managed faster speeds than the BlackJack, even on an EDGE network. Using the same SIM card, the BlackJack scored about 130 Kbits per second, while the Epix got 210 Kbits. That’s a big boost. I’m not sure what’s responsible for it: the difference could be better software, faster processor speed, or improved radio firmware. Whatever way you slice it, it’s good.

GPS

Speaking of performance comparisons, one of the few things that I find annoying about my BlackJack II is that Samsung didn’t bother to properly implement network assistance for the GPS. The receiver has to do all the work itself, meaning you need to wait for it to find a lock. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered the GPS on the Epix makes excellent use of cellular network boosting. The very first time I turned it on in Google Maps, from inside the second story of a house no less, it locked in five seconds flat.

You can’t always get this kind of performance out of it, but on the whole it’s much faster and more tolerant of poor signal areas than a stand-alone receiver. Cellular boosting can mean the difference between five minutes for a GPS lock, and 30 seconds, or even a failure to get a lock at all.

You can’t use the GPS receiver with the cellular radio off, but you can use it without a SIM card in the device, meaning it works even if there’s no phone service. Why is this the case? I haven’t the foggiest clue. You’d have to ask Samsung. My best guess would be that the GPS receiver uses some part of the cellular radio, possibly its antenna, that isn’t accessible if the cellular module is turned off. It’s a minor annoyance, but only a very minor one.

Of course if you’re not in an area with service, you’re also going to face a much longer wait time for a GPS lock, particularly if you’re in an environment that’s less than ideal for a signal. But that goes almost without saying for any sort of assisted GPS.

Samsung Epix

 Battery Life

When it comes to battery life. Personally, I’m of the opinion that there’s no such thing as too much wattage, and the Epix proves I’m right. The massive 1800 mAh battery provides superb run time for basic use, while still holding its own if you’re going to fire up the Wi-Fi and the GPS. Interestingly, the battery itself is physically identical to the extended battery for the original Samsung BlackJack: it even fits the separate battery charger offered with that model.

It would take the most insane of power users to seriously contemplate draining the Epix dry in less than 24 hours, and light users could be looking at a week between full charges.

Known Glitches

In the couple weeks since the Epix was first released, a couple of bugs have become known. The biggest of these is that when using Exchange ActiveSync, if you receive an email while the Epix is in standby, the LED light will flash but no sound will be played. The other, more minor issue is that the phone will always use an increasing ring, regardless of who it’s set to ring.

Obviously, these issues, mostly the email bug, are a big deal for a business-oriented device. I would expect Samsung to remedy them fairly soon with a software patch, but at the time of this writing we’re still waiting on that.

Samsung Epix versus the Competition

The Samsung Epix is also known as the SGH-i907. Unfortunately this leads to confusion with the i900, also known as the Omnia. Although they share similar specs, the two devices are quite distinct in design.

The Epix is actually based on the design of the Samsung i780, a device offered overseas, but it’s not an exact copy of that, either. The Epix is thicker to accommodate a much larger battery than the i780, and sports some other minor tweaks.

Because of its design and feature set, the Epix invites comparison to the Palm Treo Pro. Both devices have a similar form-factor, GSM, Wi-Fi, and GPS.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to use the Treo Pro itself, on the face of it the Treo has several advantages over the Epix. It has a classic directional pad instead of the slightly more experimental optical mouse; a built-in 3.5 mm headphone jack without the need for an adapter; and a slightly less cramped app button layout.

To get these things, though, you have to trade off the 624 MHz processor in the Epix for the 400 MHz one in the Treo, as well as losing some of that exceptional battery capacity, 1800 mAh versus 1500 mAh.

There’s also one last hands-down victory for the Epix: price. the GSM version of the Treo Pro runs $550, while the Epix is rated at $200 with a new contract or extension. This is a bit of an unfair comparison, of course, because the Treo is sold unlocked and without contract, but the bottom line is that you’re just not going to get a cheap Treo Pro, while the Epix is available at a heavy discount to a lot of people.

Conclusion

A few minor nitpicks aside, the Samsung Epix is one of the most robust smartphones available on the market. It combines exceptional battery life, a great feature set, and finely-tuned performance. Samsung’s added another winner to their already substantial herd.

Pros:

  • Extensive feature set
  • Great battery life
  • Exceptional RF performance 

Cons:

  • Optical mouse less precise than a directional pad
  • Some software glitches 

Bottom Line:

A robust and for the most part well designed smartphone whose few small flaws are set against a lot of advantages.

 


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